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Thomas Davis


Thomas Boyd Davis (b. New Hope, Virginia, 1878) moved to Huntington with his family in 1881. Davis became a machinist with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway shops there, rising to become president of the city machinist union. He also served on city council, as the city’s fire chief, and in the West Virginia National Guard, eventually becoming battalion commander with rank of major.

Davis played several important roles in the state’s bloody and protracted mine wars. During the 1912-1913 Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike, martial law was proclaimed three times; Davis served as provost marshal (chief law enforcement officer) of the military commissions that held jurisdiction over nearly 145 square miles of Kanawha, Fayette, Raleigh, and Boone counties. He also famously served as “minder” for Mary “Mother” Jones during her house arrest at Pratt, and led the May 1913 raid on the Huntington Socialist and Labor Star printing plant. (The state supreme court later upheld the governor’s authority to suppress a disruptive newspaper outside of the martial law zone.)

Davis resigned from the Guard in 1915 due to hearing loss. With the entire Guard in federal service during World War I, Davis was called from retirement in March 1918 and appointed acting adjutant general to handle internal security. In that capacity Davis oversaw county home guard units and ran the department of special deputy police. Conditions were relatively peaceful during wartime, but Davis directed five special deputy deployments before the department was disbanded in July 1919.

In September 1919, a group of miners marched in protest from Lens Creek in Kanawha County to the Coal River in Boone. As a condition of terminating the protest, the state agreed to conduct a formal investigation of conditions in nonunion fields. Davis headed this inquiry, and his final report placed the blame for unsettled conditions on United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) agitation. The Davis report further eroded the miners’ trust in the state government and law enforcement.

The Second Mine War centered on a UMWA strike erupting in Mingo County in 1920. On May 21, 1921, Governor Ephraim Morgan proclaimed martial law there, and named Major Davis as administrator. Davis relied on West Virginia State Police Company B to enforce the proclamation until the state supreme court invalidated that approach, holding that martial law could be enforced only by the military. Davis was the only soldier in the county; Morgan reissued the proclamation, providing two “enrolled militia” companies under Davis’s command. The major did not personally participate in the Battle of Blair Mountain, but did dispatch Company B to help defend Logan County from the armed miners. Martial law was not rescinded in Mingo County until September 1922.

Davis retired as Commanding Officer, Mingo County Enrolled Militia, on July 1, 1923. Thereafter he sold mine supplies and worked as chief deputy sheriff under Don Chafin in Logan County. He also managed Chafin’s considerable property holdings. In 1933, Davis was appointed superintendent of the new capitol building and grounds. He and his wife moved to Charleston, where he died on February 10, 1935. His wife was soon appointed state historian and archivist, where she was suspected of “disappearing” documentation related to suppression of labor unrest.

Written by Merle T. Cole


  1. Cole, Merle T. "Martial Law in West Virginia and Major Davis as ‘Emperor of Tug River". West Virginia History, 43, Winter 1982.

  2. Cole, Merle T. "The Department of Special Deputy Police, 1917 1919". West Virginia History, 44, Summer 1983.

  3. Cole, Merle T. "Thomas B. Davis, The Governor’s Go-to Guy". Goldenseal, 45, Summer 2019.